Just me, the tree gods, and a mosaic full of mermaids

Jeremy Atiyah hears echoes of Byzantium in Italy's Land's End - the deserted, beautiful, and mysterious region of Salento

The Salento peninsula - the tip of the stiletto heel of Italy - is easy enough to miss. After all, it is a region on the way to nowhere. Everyone heading for Greece has already boarded a ferry at Brindisi, south of which there is only Lecce, where the mainline trains terminate and the motorways begin to fizzle out. Even guidebook writers hardly make it further than this.

The Salento peninsula - the tip of the stiletto heel of Italy - is easy enough to miss. After all, it is a region on the way to nowhere. Everyone heading for Greece has already boarded a ferry at Brindisi, south of which there is only Lecce, where the mainline trains terminate and the motorways begin to fizzle out. Even guidebook writers hardly make it further than this.

The latest flood of tourist arrivals to Puglia, landing on Ryanair flights at Bari or Brindisi, does not seem to be coming here either. Instead, drawn by talk of the "new Tuscany", the masses are beating a path to the trulli-zone in the picturesque Valle D'Itria (prompting one regional newspaper to describe it recently as an "English colony").

Perhaps it is Salento's blessing that it has nothing as obviously quaint as the trullo: it has to make do, instead, with tree-gods, hypnotic dances, echoes of a lost Byzantium and the murmur of waves beating on the edge of the world.

For a six-week period in July and August, the whole region suddenly teems with noisy Italian tourists. For the rest of the year, it is dead quiet. A few rich foreigners live discreetly in their baronial homes, undisturbed by the Ryanair hoards. But let traditional Italophiles be warned: Salento does not look like your dream of Italy. There is no whiff of Tuscany here.

It actually resembles a particularly scuffed part of Greece, or perhaps Africa, with villages of flat-roofed houses, and a beautiful rocky coast where leathery old medallion-men mess around in boats.

This is not to say that it is not lovely. Every village contains its historic centre, displaying the antique gold and pink hues of authentic, Leccese stone. There's usually a baroque palazzo; a castle or two. The only pity is the number of antique houses that have been hastily modernised by locals: the resulting Swiss-chalet style of architecture can be almost funny, until you remember what has been destroyed.

But I'm not complaining. The peninsula is also full of olive trees. The olives of Salento, they boast, once fed the lamps that illuminated the streets of London.

And a random drive through the interior throws up one obscure marvel after another. Here is what happened when I drove south from Lecce the other day. First I stumbled across Galatina, with its fabulous 14th-century frescos in the church of Santa Caterina. Next was Maglie, with its elegant mansions and swankily dressed bourgeoisie. I discovered Poggiardo, where, in the Ristorante la Piazza, I was served a vast and unique antipasti that included lightly battered fennel leaves, ricotta with figs and cranberry, and croquettes with fresh mint. Not until after lunch did I finally hit the coast, at Castro, in time to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains of Albania hovering above the sea like a mirage, with Greece shimmering distantly to the south.

It is this suggestion of the exotic east that is particularly seductive. The Roman world was slow in penetrating these parts, and there are villages in Salento where the Greek language lingers on, dating back certainly to the era of Byzantium, if not to that of classical Greece.

On narrow lanes, between dry-stone walls lined with oleander, amid groves containing trees a thousand years old or more, I get the impression of a region steeped in mysterious religions. Turn off the road anywhere and I find menhirs and dolmens and other relics of the long-lost Messapian culture. But what excites me still more is one magic religion that survives today in Salento - Tarantism.

This bizarre little cult, with its own indigenous symbols and beliefs, has the potential to fill the whole peninsula with stupefied foreign tourists. In summer festivals, you find its music everywhere. Old men by bonfires beat out a frenetic rhythm on tambourines, while women sing, and breathless dancers spin and whirl their way to redemption. Centuries ago, it was believed that a strange sickness, found only in women, and believed to have been caused by the bite of a spider, could be cured by engaging in this ritual, high-speed dance. The people of Salento still swear by its therapeutic properties.

Except that this is winter. It is not the season for dancing. It is time for off-season tours of the regional highlights.

For my own trip, I have elected to bypass the Ionian coast, on the western side of the peninsula. Developments on the shore over there are a little tawdry. The Adriatic is what I want to see, starting with bijou Otranto: a historic town, full of boutique stores and ice-cream vendors, and massively fortified.

As Italy's most easterly city, Otranto haughtily proclaims itself to be in a state of high alert against the "menace" of eastern Europe. On the Capo d'Otranto, a promontory to the south, ancient stone watchtowers gaze out towards Albania.

The land hereabouts is a treeless, rocky maquis, covered in tiny flowers. When the sun's rays are horizontal, it might be the west coast of Scotland. But the towers are relics of a time when the threat was real. In the year 1480, the Ottoman Empire attempted to launch an invasion of Italy at this point. Otranto was captured from the sea, and 800 of its citizens put to death. Mehmed II himself was said to be on his way, determined to use Otranto as a bridgehead for a conquest not only of Italy, but of all Christendom. The Pope in Rome prepared to flee to Avignon. But events stalled. Mehmed died a year later. His forces withdrew from Italy, never to return. In the year 2005, old Pugliese folk, as if caught in an ancient dream, are still wont to shout out in times of stress, "Mamma, le Turchi!"

Otranto's cathedral contains one of the most fabulous gems of mediaeval art in Europe. I am talking of the vast, 900-year-old mosaic floor, as anarchic a collection of characters and motifs as that intensely Christian world could ever have conceived (featuring Alexander the Great, King Arthur, elephants, trees of life, mermaids, and the Queen of Sheba, among others, with inscriptions in Greek, Latin and Arabic).

The coastal road meanders south. My next stop is Santa Cesarea Terme, an old-fashioned spa resort that has seen better days in years gone by, and may well see better days in years to come. Faded mansions, the playthings of 19th-century aristocrats, dominate the front, in particular the famous Villa Sticchi with its Arabesque domes and arches. On a sunny winter's day, I find a few cafés open here; a couple of old hotels are undergoing refurbishment for the coming season.

The gorgeous rocky coast beyond remains unexploited all the way to the southernmost tip of the peninsula. The road is narrow and winding. In summer, Italian holidaymakers will cruise up and down in search of the perfect cove or grotto, accessible by steps cut into the cliffs. But hotels are few and far between. Olive groves still dominate the landward view.

I stop for lunch at Marina di Andrano, where a stout little lady provides a dish of stout little squid. When I ask if I might eat my lunch at the picnic tables across the road, by the blue sea, bathed in warm winter sunshine, she cries, "Why not?", and scuttles across the road with my dishes in her hands.

Finally I reach Santa Maria di Leuca, Italy's Land's End. In ancient times, the Messapians and the Greeks had sanctuaries here, and a Roman temple to Minerva attracted pilgrims by the thousand. Today it is still a pilgrimage centre - a sanctuary for the Madonna of Finibus Terrae has been built on the site of Minerva's old temple. The current Pope has visited it. And centuries ago, they say, St Francis of Assisi came, as did St Peter himself.

I feel sure that all of them enjoyed the views, the food, and the spirit of Salento.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) offers returns from Stansted to Brindisi from around £40. Hertz (08708-44 88 44; www.hertz.com) offers one week's car rental from Brindisi airport from around €218 (£150). A charming private railway, Ferrovie del Sud Est (00 39 080 546 2111; www.fseonline.it), does a circuit of the region from Lecce.

Where to stay

Long Travel (01694 722367; www.long-travel.co.uk) offers seven nights' b&b at Hotel Patria Palace in Lecce from £571 per person, based on two sharing, including car hire but not flights. It also offers stays at the family-run Hotel Al Duemila, about 20 km from Gallipoli, from £299 per person per week, a price which includes return airport transfers and half-board based on two sharing but excludes flights.

Perhaps the best place to stay in Salento is the eight-bedroom 15th century covent Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, Marittima di Diso (07736 362328), owned by Lord and Lady McAlpine. Doubles start at €250 (£178) per night on a half-board basis. The house is open from May until the end of October.

Further information

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it)

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